Turkish wrestling with the past and future

Unraveling Turkey’s political past and future will be a lot like slipping out of the grip of a Turkish oil wrestler: much harder than it looks

Remembering Atatürk
Fernando Menendez
On 20 June 2013 08:26

The last few weeks have seen the otherwise tranquil streets of Turkey turn into battlefields between rock-tossing civilians and heavily-armed police forces. Initially, the spark setting the flame was a government decision to convert a quiet city park into a shopping mall. When protesters took to the streets, the police responded with feral force escalating the situation. The current upheaval in Turkey, however, reflects tectonic shifts in the country’s economic, political and cultural foundations.

Since its birth in 1923 the tensions within Turkish society have strained the limits of the Republic. The legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Atatürk is an honorific meaning Father of the Turkish people) was a double-edged sword. While launching the modernization of Turkish society, it also displayed a profound bias against Islamic religious tradition establishing the military as the authoritarian guardians of the secular state.


Atatürk and the movement named for him, Kemalism, instituted several radical reforms transforming Turkey into a modern secular society. Atatürk’s government abolished the caliphate, granted women equal rights, rebuilt public education and expanded literacy, implemented agrarian reform, and laid the basis for modern industry. Of course, Kemalism, germinated in the heyday of socialist ideologies, was strong on the central role of the state in directing social and economic development.

The military became the guardians of Kemalist secularism, eventually overthrowing several civilian governments. In 1960, the soldiers ousted the first democratically-elected government of President Celal Bayar. The military found Bayar’s religious tolerance and promotion of private enterprise, with its decentralization and dispersal of power, seditious. Bayar’s Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, was executed. The generals struck again in 1971, 1980, and 1997.

In 2002, the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK (Justice and Development) party, led to liberalization of the economy and curtailing the power of the military. Until 2008, when the world recession hit, strong economic performance averaging 6 percent annual growth raised living standards. By 2010 a growth rate of 9.2 percent was recorded. The “Turkish miracle” was marked by the emergence and expansion of an entrepreneurial middle class.

The new middle class, Erdogan’s base, is centered in the more socially conservative Anatolian heartland. Many Westerners lauded Erdogan’s economic model and direction as a moderate alternative to regional Islamic fundamentalism.

Erdogan’s streetcar

Nevertheless, Erdogan is noticeably equivocal about democracy, reportedly describing democracy as a streetcar: “you get off once you reach your destination.” Having won three general elections, it may be that he has reached his stop.

The government is increasingly repressive and authoritarian moving against the sale and consumption of alcohol, continuing to violate Kurdish minority rights, and promoting Islamic education in the public schools. Today, Turkey has a sizeable number of journalists in prison. Police brutality in handling the current demonstrators reminds some of the militarist past.

The economic miracle is also slowing down. Last year the economy grew a lackluster 2.5 percent with inflation running at 7 percent. High interest rates have attracted foreign bank depositors but also overvalued the lira and led to rising demand for foreign goods. Meanwhile, Turkey’s population of 77 million includes 66 million phone subscribers and 32 million internet connections, giving rise to social media which Mr. Erdogan has loudly criticized as undermining the “national will.”

As the recent pro-government demonstrates show, some Turks might prefer law and order to the current street protests. Erdogan’s supporters now suggest the protests are being encouraged by Damascus and Teheran to weaken Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war. Be that as it may, Turkey’s deep divisions are real and deep.

Turkish liberals, like elsewhere in the region, have long been between a rock and a hard place. Their values of secularism and modernity have traditionally been guarded by the authoritarian military. Meanwhile, the proponents of economic and political liberalization have come from the Turkish heartland with its Islamic values and traditions.

Unfortunately, Turkey’s liberals, putting their faith in the all-powerful state, have ignored the role free markets and limited government play in securing individual rights and prosperity.

Unraveling Turkey’s political past and future will be a lot like slipping out of the grip of a Turkish oil wrestler: much harder than it looks.

Fernando Menéndez is an economist and principal of the Cordoba Group International LLC a strategic consulting firm providing economic and political analysis to clients

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